Why do we say, When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do?

How many of us say a phrase without actually knowing where it comes from? The phrase “when in Rome…” is no exception, but today you can learn where it originated. 

You have most likely heard the phrase “When in Rome, do what as the Romans do” uttered at least once in your life. This recognised phrase isn’t just used within Rome, but worldwide. It has become such a cliché that people no longer need the second part of the phrase to understand someone’s meaning. Merely saying “when in Rome…” is enough to get the message across. You may have even used the phrase yourself a few times, and yet, like most other phrases, traditions or customs that have been handed down, not many people know its origins. Well, along with numerals, engineering and worship, we owe the creation of this phrase to ancient Rome. It was here that the phrase came to be, with help from Saint Augustine and Ambrose.

The origin of the phrase

The phrase’s origin can be traced back to the 4th century A.D. during the Roman Empire. At this time, an early Christian saint, named Saint Augustine, moved to Milan to take the role of a professor of rhetoric. He found the place different from his previous Rome church, as they did not do fast on Saturdays. Saint Ambrose, a bishop of Milan offered St. Augustine some wise words; ‘Romanum venio, ieiuno Sabbato; hic sum, non ieiuno: sic etiam tu, ad quam forte ecclesiam veneris, eius morem serva, si cuiquam non vis esse scandalum nec quemquam tibi.’ This translated to ‘when I go to Rome, I fast on Saturday, but here I do not. Do you also follow the custom of whatever church you attend if you do not want to give or receive scandal?’ The young St Augustine wrote these words down in a letter allowing which is estimated to of been written between 387–390 AD. Throughout history, the phrase has grown in popularity as similar expressions have been uttered in plays, books, songs, films, and letters. Its most well-known recounting was in 1777 in the ‘Interesting Letters of Pope Clement XIV.’ Uttering, ‘The siesto, or afternoon’s nap of Italy, my most dear and reverend Father, would not have alarmed you so much, if you had recollected, that when we are at Rome, we should do as the Romans do’.

The meaning of the phrase

The phrase’s meaning is if visiting a foreign land, it is polite, and also advantageous to follow the customs and practises of those who live in it. It can also translate to those who are in an unfamiliar situation, should follow and adapt to the actions of those who are comfortable and aware of the status quo. This can include changing your style, clothing, habits, food, and day-to-day life to fit into an entirely new world. Giving you a new perspective of the world, you live in from a completely different interpretation.

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